When It’s Time to Fire a Customer

By Phil Britt
June 12, 2019

Companies pour a lot of resources into customer experience, customer acquisition and customer retention efforts. Yet there are times when a particular customer is no longer worth the investment.

Customer Is too Costly
Some businesses will take on a customer who is initially unprofitable in the hopes that the relationship will change in the future. For example, some financial institutions will have very low fee accounts for college students, with the idea of building a relationship with someone who will need loans and other products and services down the line, or a business may offer a large initial discount to get a customer “in the door,” yet the relationship may never become profitable.

“Sometimes you may have customers who love you and your products — to death,” said Linda Popky, president of Leverage2Market Associates, Inc . “While your support model allows for occasional customer interactions, these customers may contact your support team on a daily basis with questions and requests. They may expect upgrades or customization that you aren’t prepared to support, given the margins you have on those product lines.”

Other times, the customer may be devoted to an older, legacy version of your product line — one that you can’t afford to continue supporting as you transition to newer offerings, according to Popky. This is why companies like Microsoft and Apple stop supporting older releases of their products. They can’t make newer features and functionality backwards compatible with older versions, and it’s too costly to continue to support multiple product streams.

“If customer behavior leads to lower profits — say a client runs an architect ragged with irrational changes during the building time of a custom house, yet the contract is based on a set percentage, and they refuse to pay excessive change order fees, yes — firing the client may be in order, along with a stronger contract next time,” said Baron Christopher Hanson, owner of RedBaron Consulting, LLC . “We’ve worked with a few clients such as high-end art galleries whereby the profit in the sale is somewhat set — 50% split between artist and gallery. However, each sale and delivery cycle can either be easy and quick (highly profitable) or lengthy and excruciatingly not as profitable.”

However, the reason to fire a customer isn’t always financial.

Too Much Tension
“The time has come to fire a client when there are clear signs of an escalating pattern of tension. At that point the client relationship becomes increasingly less beneficial, and more problematic,” said James Cassel, co-founder of the Miami-based investment banking firm Cassel Salpeter & Co . “Most business owners know when such a relationship is not a good one, or working well, but are hesitant to fire the client. And yet, more often than not, firing a client turns out to be for the best because you end up concentrating on expanding and improving relationships with existing clients, or on spending time and resources to find new clients.”

The tension can arise from several sources, Cassel said. There could be ethical issues about the way they do business, or you may have knowledge of the customer operating at the margins of the law, or even breaking it. The customer’s “risk profile” may prove problematic, which could hurt an organization’s own reputation.

No Longer a Fit
As companies grow and business environments change, they often have the need to pivot, said Popky. “IBM has reinvented itself numerous times — from offering big mainframes to PCs to software to services. Western Union transitioned from sending telegrams in the 19th century to providing money transfer services to 200 countries across the globe. Apple moved from personal computers to iPods to iPads to iPhones. Along the way, each of these companies had to shed customers that didn’t need the new product offerings or didn’t want to make the switch. There may be a short-term business hit, but the longer-term upside makes the decision to fire these customers worthwhile.”

Popky adds that sometimes there isn’t one clear, definitive reason as to why a customer is no longer a good fit for your organization. It could be there’s a change in management at the customer’s organization and they’re now looking for a different relationship with their suppliers. It could be that a change in economic conditions is driving them to a low pricing model, while you offer a more premium product that no longer fits their strategy.

The Right Way to Terminate
Some companies will quietly fire certain customers through pricing policies — like banks that raise minimums for checking accounts. They’ve determined the customers that don’t meet the minimum are no longer the type of customer that it makes the most sense to serve. Other times, the “firing” action is a little less subtle. But even though the organization is cutting ties, there is still a CX element to ending the relationship.

“When firing a client, above all, you want to be respectful and professional, and careful to avoid burning bridges,” Cassel said. “This is not a time for carelessly venting your pent-up frustration. The business landscape and marketplace are dynamic, and you never know when, or how things might change. Sometimes it is better to terminate the client by phone, or even in person, rather than by email or text, since a sensitive customer could mistakenly read their own tone into the words you’ve written.”